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The British Welfare

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By Maryam Diomande

In a Welfare State, the government empowers the state to play a key role in protecting and promoting the economic and social well-being of all its citizen.

The British Welfare State did not fully develop until after the World War II but it has a long story dating back to the Elizabethan Poor Laws. In 1601, England was going through a state of bankruptcy, with large scale unemployment and widespread famine. To maintain order and contribute to the general good of the kingdom, the Queen proclaimed a series of laws known as the Elizabethan Poor Laws. Under the 1601 Poor Relief Act the poor were categorised into three groups: the vagrant, the helpless and the involuntary unemployed. Parish officials were given the authority to raise taxes as needed and use the funds to build and manage almshouses; to supply food and sustenance in their own homes for the aged and the handicapped, and to purchase materials necessary to put the able-bodied to work (Hasan, 2011).

Poverty was still a problem when steps were taken to improve the poor law in the nineteenth century the only element that had been conditioned was the way poverty was viewed, and that was a consequence of the industrial revolution in progress (Spiker, 2017). The accelerated change in society and economy created a considerable gap between rich and poor. Additionally, the rapid growth of dense urban areas with their problems of public health, housing, crime, and poverty was clearly not suited to the old system (Wilde, 2017), that is why in 1834 a new poor law was introduced.

The new Poor Law ensured that the poor were housed in workhouses, clothed and fed. The workhouses were introduced to humiliate the poor physically and psychologically because they believed that the conditions would shame them until they will be able to stand on their feet and improve their own lives. Conditions inside the workhouse were deliberately harsh so that only those who desperately needed help would ask for it.

During the late 19th century the British government, under the Liberal party, acted according to the “laissez-faire” ideology, which meant to keep itself out of everything with a minimum state intervention. This principle led many in the government to think that individuals were responsible for their own lives and welfare. Another popular ideology at that time was the one of the “self-help” that consisted in the thought that people could get themselves out of poverty through education and hard work. This belief was promoted by Samuel Smiles, who published a book in 1859 called ‘self-help’ in which he argued that the average worker could avoid poverty by working hard and saving some of their wages. Those who did not look after themselves were lazy, unable or unwilling to save.

At the end of the 19th century, Seebohm Rowntree and Charles Booth shocked the wealthy Victorians with their studies leading to changes of opinions about the poor and attitudes toward them. Booth, believing that if people were poor it was their own fault and suspecting that reports of poverty were exaggerated, decided to undertake its own studies  about the life of the poor in London. His findings ‘Life and labour of the people in London’ changed his opinion and he concluded that 30% of London’s population was living in poverty. His researches inspired Rowntree to investigate the causes of poverty. His book ‘Poverty, A study of Town Life’ published in 1901 showed that poverty was widespread and one-third of the population lived in poverty. He concluded that there were two types of poverty. Families whose earnings were too low to maintain physical efficiency were described as living in primary poverty. Secondary poverty was used to describe those whose earnings were enough but who spent their money in a wasteful way. Rowntree deduced that the main causes of poverty were age, unemployment and illness.

A conclusive factor that highlighted the severity of poverty was the outbreak of the Boer war in 1899 between British Empire and the Boer Republicans in South Africa. During this war Britain performed really badly, taking 3 years to defeat Boers. The British army experienced difficulty in finding fit men to recruit as soldiers because 9 out 10 recruits were rejected as they were unfit, this led to the question asked about the physical condition of the working class male.

The growing awareness of the graveness of poverty and the spread of socialism resulted in the creation of a new type of Liberalism by 1906. It promoted the idea that the government should intervene to help the poor. It was this “new liberalism” which provided the inspiration for social reform.

In 1906 the Liberal Party won a majority in parliament and carried out a series of social reforms to help reduce poverty. The 1906 Education Act allowed local authorities to provide free school meals. In 1907 the Medical inspection for Children reform was passed. The 1908 Children and Young Person Act Introduced a set of regulations that became known as the Children’s Charter. This imposed severe punishments for neglecting or treating children cruelly. In the same year, pensions were introduced for the over 70s. In 1909 labour exchanges were set up to help unemployed people find work. Additionally, numerous employment reforms were passed, such as the 1908 Mines Act that limited the time a miner could work to 8 hours a day, the 1909 Trade Boards Act and the 1911 Shops Act which limited the working hours of shop workers to 60 hours a week. Finally, the 1911 National insurance Act was passed. The act gave people the right to free medical treatment and sick pay as well as the right to an unemployment pay (, n.d.).


World War II helped to create a wartime spirit and a collective response to the nation’s problems. There was a strong feeling that the British people should be rewarded for their sacrifice and resolution. To encourage the British people to continue their fight, the government promised reforms that would create an equal society.

The British government also asked William Beveridge to write a report on the best ways of helping poor people. Beveridge believed that want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness were the giants on the road to reconstruction and he thought that to fight these giants an adequate system of sickness and unemployment benefit was needed as well as an appropriate national health service, family allowance and an employment policy. He believed that all the problems would have to be solved to improve the welfare of the British citizens. When in 1945, the Labour Party won the general election, the new prime minister, Clement Attlee, announced he would introduce the welfare state outlined in the Beveridge Report. Between 1945 and 1951 the Labour Government instituted a number of reforms and changes in order to attempt to tackle the five giants.



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